“Quota system is evil” – Dr. Saulos Klaus Chilima, Vice President, Republic of Malawi.
For a long time, Malawi has had a systemic educational policy of enrolling students into public university based on quota system.
The quota system, which is based on students’ district of origin, rather than merit alone, has been used for nearly a decade now and acts as a form of affirmative action for students from the country’s central and southern regions due to their perceived regional underrepresentation at universities.
Malawi’s first president Kamuzu Banda introduced the quota system in the 1960s to address what the government perceived was a disproportionately high number of admissions of students from the northern region areas of the country.
Malawians from the north are seen as advantaged due to the establishment by missionaries of good schools such as the the Livingstonia Mission named after Scottish explorer David Livingstone.
However, those opposed to the policy say Banda introduced it to settle political scores as most of his political opponents came from that region.
Understandably, in 2008, University World News reported that in 1993 the High Court of Malawi reversed the government’s decision to implement the policy and the courts upheld the decision in 2008 following an appeal. The court argued that the policy “was discriminatory and in violation of the fundamental right of Malawian citizens”.
In 2009, the government of the late president Bingu wa Mutharika reintroduced what it termed the ‘Equitable Access to Higher Education’ policy, also based on regional quotas.
Bingu wa Mutharika’s brother, Arthur Peter Mutharika, when he ascended to power in 2014, kept enforcing it until as late as 2019 and that is one of the main reason he and political cronies were deposed off the clout.
During the 2019 and 2020 elections respectively, one of the Tonse Alliance campaign songbook theme was ending the quota system, a seemingly outright evil that was intentionally embedded into our education system by some misguided folks.
Intentional? Damn right!
Yes, it was more political than the argument of equity that the framers of that policy would have liked us to believe.
The previous DPP oligarchs and and some from the old MCP had sought to use a popular strategy like quota to skew and bend the truth about the aspect of justice within the constitutional norms of fairness and equality.
They only did this to leverage power and gain political mileage under the disguise of equitable access and fair play.
In a typical benevolent dictators stunt, they carefully picked a potentially divisive and discordant issue to pit people against each other unnecessarily.
This was In a way similar with how Hitler and the Nazi Germany took advantage of the existing prejudice that linked the Jews to monetary power and financial dominance over the majority Germans.
Let’s not to forget to remember that antisemitism was a very popular policy because the Nazis effectively used negative stereotype labeling Jews as subversives and the reason why Germany was failing.
Instead of finding lasting solutions, they took advantage of the ever present angry jousting of competing narratives that already existed and added fuel to flare up the flames
When the dissonance between the groups of people has reached a certain high, it creates a perfect discrepant condition for mistrust, misinformation and suspicion among rival groups.
This is where politicians and lobbyists find their social capital and that’s where their perverted agendas and ambitions thrive.
It is a perfect catalyst for identity politics of tribalism and regionalism.
All what is needed is a popular grievance to pit groups against each other.
It’s the “us against them” or the divide and rule that is employed to do the baiting.
Let’s be honest, we all harbour a natural propensity of prejudices to some degree within ourselves.
And, in those moments, when we are vulnerable and are led to believe otherwise against others, it’s easy to begin manifesting hate and unwarranted anger towards each other – we lose the sobriety.
We simply become victims of lies and manipulation.
We tend to forget that what can unite us is more powerful than what divides us.
It’s fair to say that quota or affirmative action was not bad by itself.
It was supposed to be used by government to remedy the effects of long-standing discrimination against marginalized groups across the board, period.
However, the way it was presented especially during the DPP and MCP’s one party rule, was plain evil.
It was never designed to achieve any objective of leveling the playing field within the norms and standards of equity and equality.
The methodology of such a policy was supposed to be best tailored to analyse other disparities, gaps and barriers that exist for the disabled, social economically challenged including girls and women as a priority.
None of that was considered and what was introduced instead was something sinister.
They intentionally and carefully picked a potentially divisive and discordant issue to pit people against each other unnecessarily.
It was used as red meat that was carelessly dangled to lure those from the south and central region to be toxically suspicious against their northern region counterparts.
In the most worst case scenario this could have easily sparked ethnic cleansing and genocide.
So, in my view it is only right that we abolished the policy.
There might have been some good things isolated within the whole policy but the politics around it made it very toxic.
It’s like forcing people to preserve symbols and emblems of the oppressors just to keep a piece of history.
This was a dark chapter in our history, especially for those of us from the north and now we don’t have to pretend about it.
The architects of this policy especially during the DPP didn’t even care to hide their intentions and were open about their goal.
They were hell-bent on stopping the poor kids from the northern region from accessing high learning education.
So, on that note, I would like to commend the Tonse government for showing interest in completely abolishing the system.
That’s how a nation heals.
This, however, should be used as a reset button towards a better solution and a greater good. It should not be reduced into a cheap political scorecard.
Nonetheless, just abolishing quota without replacing it with a more suitable and reasonable policy is equally inefficient.
Without getting overboard with emotions, we need a sober approach on how we can best diagnose the inequalities and injustices and forge ahead with real lasting solutions.
It’s time for our leaders to come up with a different serious national policy with a more nuanced approach for a complete redress of all social imperatives for the disabled, girls and socio-economically challenged.
However, this can not be a reality unless we intentionally approach it from the bottom to the top.
Instead of focusing on who comes from where and punishing some of our hard working and estimable students, we have to shift beyond equitable access to universities only.
The biggest problem and challenge has been how we have been selecting our kids to secondary schools.
That is why when some of the Tonse government supporters were taking a victory lap some few days ago about the increased number of intake of students from some of the affected regions into the higher learning institutions, I was a bit skeptical to join in.
Most of these kids that were selected from Chaminade Secondary school for example could still be those that were selected under the DPP system and are not from the surrounding region.
This could give us a false indication until we know how many kids from Karonga, Rumphi or Chitipa made that list.
I have just used one example because it was the one that every Tonse apologist was highlighting.
It will be in 2025 that we will be able to judge if Tonse government indeed managed to dismantle quota.
However, it would be only fair to thank our President and his government for taking this issue seriously and making their stand clearly known as to where they stand in this issue..
There also has to be a consideration for those in CDSS.
We can’t expect students from these under equipped and poorly resourced schools to compete with students from rich private schools and other well funded government schools.
Most of the teachers in these Community Day Secondary Schools are not incentivized well and so they remain less ambitious and non competitive.
We need to expand and improve the capacity of these educators by investing in their training and compensating them well.
Nevertheless, we know that the real issue is capacity.
I remember during campaign Vice President Rt Honourable Chilima was constantly suggesting his plan to remedy issues of capacity and providing equitable education for all college students would include the use of a nonconformal and creative approach.
His idea on using the optic fiber cables as a solution to remove and replace barriers to student intake into the university was what I thought could be the priority for this government.
The internet technology can link students with professors from distant place in almost a real time at a speed of light with no lag in connection.
That means scores of students could be able to attend classes and access a lecturer virtually without being required to be in a campus physically.
That is why we have been calling for internet data costs to be caped and that government must do anything to intervene.
We should not forget that Education is not just a sector.
As such, education ought to be treated as an industry with a potential to affect our economy and shape the destiny of our children’s future.
When President Chakwera stated that Malawians had a date with destiny, it surely had to start with making sure that every child is not left behind.
From Nsanje to Chitipa every child has to be treated equally and has to be given access to education so that limitless possibilities could be unleashed.
As I sign out, let us, with a sense of great responsibility and human integrity, consider the wise words of Catholic Bishop, Professor Ryan of the Mzuzu Diocese of the Catholic Church who once told a local newspaper the quota system has (had) negative consequences for bright students in the country.
“I was a teacher for many years, and it pains me to see a student who has done well in his or her studies failing to reach tertiary education because of the district they come from, and I believe selection of students should be on ability and capacity.”
Let us fight this evil with everything we have.
Together we can, as they say, United we stand and divided, we fall.
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